Sir Walter Scott referred to the Deerhound as “the most perfect creature of Heaven,” and breeders today likewise speak passionately of the breed. Those who know the breed appreciate its sterling attributes, in no small respect because of how those traits have withstood the test of time.
Tracing Breed History
The earliest clues to breed origins can be found in stones sculpted by the Piets, the tribal folk who peopled much of Scotland through the Dark Ages until the arrival of the Scots from Ireland in the mid-ninth century. Many of these “Pictish stones,” which contain both abstract symbols and scenes of Pictish life, depict a Greyhoundlike dog in pursuit of deer. Some historians believe this dog may have been the Deerhound’s ancestor. Whatever the case, there is solid historical evidence that from a very early era, going back at least a thousand years, large sighthounds have been used by the people of northern Britain to hunt deer.
In looking back on the breed’s development, it is important to consider both the region’s terrain and the hound’s quarry. English breeder Norah Hartley, in her book The Deerhound, writes poetically of Scotland’s rugged land. “[I]ts climate and terrain have played their part in fixing his particular characteristics,” she notes. “It is against this background that the mind’s eye must focus the deerhound, his strong feet holding him secure on some rocky crest, the wind brushing back his shaggy eyebrows and revealing his dark eyes alight with excitement, his thick harsh coat turning the driving rain.”
Likewise, she describes the dog’s prey: “His quarry, the wild red deer, is both a formidable antagonist and a tempting prize. Standing about four feet at the withers and weighing in the region of 38 stone [400 pounds], he possesses such speed and strength that a dog must be remarkably swift and powerful in order to overtake him and bring him to bay. Moreover, the deer is furnished with effective and dangerous weapons; the lovely antlers which he carries with such proud grace …”
Always, the dogs were highly valued. During the Middle Ages, no one of rank lower than that of earl was allowed to possess a Deerhound. In records from that era are numerous allusions to the breed’s attributes—his courage in the chase, his gentle dignity in the home. Deerhounds were prized by the Highland chieftains and were “in full use in the days of King Robert Bruce,” writes Freeman Lloyd in the March 1942 American Kennel Gazette. Through the 17th century, the chieftains held spectacular “tainchells,” or deer hunts. The chieftains assembled thousands of their clans, who would surround a great tract of countryside and set their hounds to hunt the deer within.
Changes in Fortune
But the Highland way of life was doomed at the battle field of Culloden, where the clans fell to the English in 1746. As the clans dispersed, their hunting dogs dwindled. In 1769, an Englishman, Thomas Pennant, visited Scotland and observed, “I saw here a true highland Greyhound, which is now very scarce: it was of a very large size, strong, deep-chested, and covered with very long and rough hair. This kind was in great vogue in former days, and used in vast numbers at the magnificent stag chases by the powerful chieftains.”
Though the breed persisted in some areas, numbers continued to decline, even more so with the improvement of the sporting rifle by the early part of the 19th century. The scarcity of Deerhounds prompted one writer, Archibald McNeill, to comment, “Should they once be lost, it is difficult to imagine how any race of dogs can again be produced possessing such a combination of qualities.”
In fact, in the 1830s McNeill and his brother Duncan, Lord Colonsay, decided to set about gathering all the purebred Deerhounds they could find to preserve the strains. This revived the breed long enough for its continuation to be ensured by the next change of events: the beginning of organized dog shows.
Several Deerhounds were exhibited at one of Britain’s first shows, in London in 1859, inspiring a reporter to write of “those splendid animals, the deer-hounds, with their fine and powerful shape, and beautiful long grey hair.” Notes breeder Cecilia Arnold in the December 1986 Gazette, “The transition from deer forest to dog shows was surprisingly easy, and the Deerhound’s saving grace.”
With the creation of dog shows came the institution of formal breed standards, and Deerhound breeders are very proud to have a standard, and a dog, that has changed little for centuries. Devotees of the breed zealously guard the standard from tampering. (The original AKC standard was taken almost verbatim from the English version of the late 19th century, and the current standard has remained unchanged since 1935.)
In the interest of enhancing understanding of the breed, however, the Scottish Deerhound Club of America published the Illustrated Standard and Discussion of the Scottish Deerhound. The booklet elaborates on a number of the breed’s essential traits, clarifying points in the standard. It begins with the top point in the standard’s “points in order of importance”: A Deerhound should resemble a rough-coated Greyhound of larger size and bone. It adds, “The overall Deerhound is well balanced, slightly longer than tall, of good bone and muscle, with a hard, ragged coat. This rough-coated dog, natural in appearance, has an air of quiet dignity.”
Breeders emphasize that although the Deerhound is not as heavy as the Wolfhound and must possess agility and speed, it must also have the strength and substance to perform the work for which it was bred-to bring down a red deer over rough terrain. “The Deerhound must have a depth of chest and spring of rib … good bone … and not be too narrow or slab-sided,” notes breeder Jay Phinizy.
“I love the juxtaposition of characteristics in the breed,” adds breeder Miranda Levin, “as Deerhounds have to be both fast and powerful. Finding that balance physically is a real breeder’s challenge.”
Accommodating the breed’s great size and its need for exercise is clearly a major aspect of living with Deerhounds. Like any breed, they are not suitable for everyone and every situation. “They do need space and a lot of exercise, and not forced exercise,” explains breeder Gayle Bontecou. “So a large, fenced-in area is really essential.”
The adult dogs often must be encouraged to get out and exercise, given their easy-to-please, relaxed nature and their desire to be with their people. Says Kate Lyons, a Deerhound breeder since 1962, “Sometimes they won’t exercise themselves … you must go with them! If you want to sit around, they’ll sit around. If you want to get out, they’ll want to-and they’ll love it.” Exercise is particularly important when they’re young; it is vital to the hound’s health. Having another dog around helps, says Bontecou. “Raising two is sure easier than raising one! In all respects-they eat better, they sleep better, they exercise better.”
When Deerhounds are given enough space and allowed to run in a natural setting, they can make a glorious sight. “We have a lot of deer on the property, in fact they kicked one up this morning,” says Lyons. “There was a wonderful run up the hill! It is beautiful to watch.”
A Hound for the Ages
It is to be hoped that the Deerhound will continue as he is, untouched through time. “It is an inspiration,” Hartley wrote in 1955, “to meet with dogs who so steadfastly believe the best of their human friends. The deerhound’s innate faith in the virtue of mankind makes him the most candid and least suspicious of dogs. His quiet dignity, his readiness to forgive an injury and to remember a kindness, his sudden fits of irresponsible gaiety, the wistful expression in his dark eyes, and his unfaltering friendship are among the gracious things of life.”
Into the next century and beyond, may Deerhounds and those who love them enjoy many a “Scottish night.”